THE treatment and management of psychiatric illnesses and maintenance of mental health are achieved through pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy.
In several countries, though, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is the treatment for mental health issues.
AAT involves animals as a form of treatment. The goal is to improve patients’ social, emotional or cognitive functioning.
The animals often used are canines, equines, dolphins, and to a lesser extent, cats, hamsters and small fishes, depending on the capacity of triggering interaction in patients.
There are psychological and physiological models that have been studied on the interaction between animal and human and how they have produced a desirable effect.
Biologist Edward O. Wilson introduced and popularised the Biophilia hypothesis, in which human survival has a natural dependence on cues from animals in the environment to give an idea about safety or threat.
In applying this principle to psychiatry, house therapy dogs that remain calm can give non-verbal cues and understanding to anxious, confused or compulsive patients that everything is in order and safe.
However, this must be complemented with psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy.
Pet therapy is one of the major elements under AAT and is used in helping children’s mental health.
Trained therapy pets, such as dogs, cats and dolphins, are used to tackle autism and attention deficit hyperactive disorder in children.
In studies involving AAT in mood disorder, primarily depressive disorders and dementia, it is seen that AAT can re-establish the functioning ability of patients by addressing their depression.
This is for patients in old folks’ and nursing homes who suffer from extensive dementia.
AAT is also helpful for patients in new environments. The patients are encouraged to hug animals.
AAT is seen to encourage emotional expression, thought process and memory recall in patients with reduced ability in social, emotional and occupational functioning.
Despite the evidence of AAT in mental health, there are several limitations.
Many critics say studies and analysis are at an emerging level and not sufficient in terms of quantity.
They said more variations were required to establish clinical significance for AAT to function on its own.
As an example, the roles of AAT in reducing or removing agitation in acute psychiatric illnesses are deemed to be insufficient.
The roles of AAT in behavioural correction also have poor evidence, as claimed by some correctional facilities.
There are paradoxical results in mental health cases involving children, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (someone who has been sexually assaulted or abused).
In Malaysia, AAT is minimally used. The only place that I encountered that applied AAT is at the 110-year-old Bahagia Hospital in Ulu Kinta, Perak.
I found that the training scope of agriculture and farming was applied and assessed to return patients to baseline functioning ability.
Some local community mental health centres have almost none of these therapeutic methods, and the patients are taught to do basic functioning and repetitive works that are unrelated to the real world.
We can do more to apply AAT to mental health cases in the country and invest more effort in emerging evidences to assess ways to analyse and include AAT in our medical health.
We could also begin local AAT studies.
Shatheswaran Rajadesinggi, Cyberjaya University College of Medical Sciences